Photography is the act of writing with light so it would not be off base to suggest that every photographer should gain an intimate understanding of the various light sources at our disposal. Part of that is understanding that rarely are two light sources identical. Short of using identical studio strobes, you will always be up against light sources that all offer unique qualities that can either help or hurt your creative process.
Perhaps one of the most important qualities of lighting is the color it casts on your subject. It is no secret that every light puts out a different color and the laws of physics haven’t changed yet so we should all know how to adjust our workflow to accommodate them. As a photographer, you may need to get true to form color when shooting for catalogues or fashion publications, or you may want to adjust the color the achieve a more artistic look. Either way, color correction can mean the difference between success and failure. Therefore, we are going to understand color temperature, how to correct for it using white balance, and how we can use white balance to be more creative!
Color temperature and what it means to you and me
Just like everything you have learned in your life, you will always gain a deeper understanding of a subject if you get to know the significance of it. In this case, color temperature rules our creative world and you may not even know it.
Color temperature marks the type of light that is radiated from a “blackbody” at that surface temperature. Now, if you are anything like me or any other photographer for that matter than you don’t really care to know what exactly color temperature is. I am sure there is a use for the true definition of color temperature in the world of physics and engineering but we are artists and just want to know why our images sometimes turn out too blue or too orange.
We will start with light. I know, the thought of learning another esoteric fact about lighting is daunting but if you only understand one thing about light it should be temperature, because the color profile of your images can make or break your career.
The down and dirty of color temperature is that every type of light has a color tint. To us, we just see a candle and know that it has an orange/yellow flame or we see a commercial fluorescent light and know that it has a blue-green tint. What you may not know is that these colors can be measured in Kelvin and represented on a color spectrum like you see below.
As you can see, when the color temperature (expressed in Kelvin) shifts from low to high, the appearance of the color shifts from warm colors to the cool colors respectively. It is also important to note that around 5,500K is the neutral point at which all colors are represented equally (white light).
We have so many light sources in our life that it can be absurdly confusing to think about all of the temperatures associated with each one so let me offer some advice. Just associate a few color temperatures with some common light sources using the table below. This will give you some real-world reference that can help you become better at estimating color temperatures.
Ok great, now you know a bit about color temperature, but why should you care? Simple, if you can estimate the color temperature of the lighting in your scene, you can use your camera to adjust for it. This is where the idea of white balance comes in.
White balance is the tool we use to correct for strange color casts in our photos. Of course, our cameras can do this automatically if you have elected to set your camera to shoot with an automatic white balance, but it often gets it wrong! Luckily, now that you have a better understanding of color temperature, you can force your camera to capture images that fit your needs.
In addition to the automatic white balance setting, your camera will most likely have several white balance presets that will correct color in many common situations:
Daylight (approx. 5200K): Best used for daylight conditions or when shooting with studio strobes. Sometimes this can force a slight bluish tint.
Shade (approx. 7000K): This setting is great for shade, cloudy days, or subjects that may be backlit. This would also be the setting for embellishing the warm tones in a setting sun.
Cloudy (approx. 6000K): This setting will provide a slight warm tint to cloudy days or even daylight situations.
Tungsten Light (approx. 3200K): The only time this remotely works is at night and indoors. This setting will usually result in blue tinted photos.
White fluorescent light (approx. 4000K): Use this setting in commercial offices and sports stadiums.
Flash: Flashes usually are slightly biased toward the blue end of the spectrum so use this setting to warm up photos taken with flash.
The white balance presets in your camera will usually serve you well but they may not be quite right. I know I will often use these presets in my quest to satisfy my lazy desires but they end up producing results that are about 90% correct but that is just not good enough! Because of this, I tend to use manually set white balance. You can do this as well by setting your camera to the Kelvin white balance and selecting the K number that best represents your creative vision with regards to the lighting at hand!
One last way you can achieve picture perfect color correction is by using the custom white balance option in your camera. You can simply take an image of a neutral colored object and tell your camera to use that as your white balance. There are several commercial white balance cards (grey card) that you can purchase, but you can just as easily snap a picture of a white sheet of paper or the cup that holds your favorite to go coffee!
Adjusting WB in Post
Any photographer who calls themselves professionals should know that shooting in RAW file format will yield more opportunities in post-production. However, does anyone know why RAW images are more useful? There are copious amounts of reasons for shooting in RAW but perhaps the most significant is the ability to adjust the white balance of an image after it was taken!
Take the before and after of the image below for example. The RAW image was taken with the white balance set to an incorrect Kelvin value, which rendered and image that had an inappropriate color cast. However, since the image was taken using the RAW file format, I was able to adjust the white balance using the appropriate sliders in Lightroom.
I wanted to shed some light on adjusting white balance in post because I never, EVER, want to see photographers throwing away perfectly good images because of color issues. However, you should not rely on adjusting color later because it can distract you from the creative process while on location. Think about it, if you constantly see funky colors on the back of your camera, then you might pay less attention to other important factors like composition or subject matter!
I want to take this time to talk about breaking the rules, because we all learn the guidelines for taking great pictures based on books and pedantic elders but we know defenestrating the manual is much more fun!
White balance can most certainly be included on the list of rules to break in photography. In fact, color is one of the most powerful tools that you can use to craft more creative images. For instance, adjusting white balance to around 3,000K and reducing your exposure by a stop or two can make a bright daylight scene look like it was taken at night.
Another great use of white balance is emphasizing a sunset by pushing the white balance of your camera into the 6,000K realm. This will make your warm colors more vibrant and will impress the other shooters around you…or not, but it’s worth a shot!
Clearly, white balance can be complicated if you let it, but hopefully, by seeing the lighter side of the subject you will think twice about ignoring it in your next photographic adventure! Just remember to focus on what white balance can do for you, not on the fact that your scene has drastically different light sources, all with unique color temperatures. Color temperature is for the birds, so just adjust your camera settings using presets, Kelvin, or a custom white balance until you achieve the look that you are going for. It is ultimately your future, so expand your photography tool chest and use white balance to your advantage.